Wednesday, August 25, 2010

First Day

The first day of fourth grade. So hard to believe that Parker is starting his fifth year at Shamrock (though even harder to accept that he has only two years left). I look at his first-day kindergarten picture, and at the one I took this morning. What happened to the neatly tucked-in shirt? What happened to the first-day-of-school haircut? Parker's not the only one who's changed.

The fourth grade classrooms look out onto the butterfly garden. Back when Parker was in kindergarten, that space held a few ragged bushes and a bumpy stretch of weeds.

It looks quite different now.

The birds and butterflies have been busy there all summer, and as I pick through the leaves I see the telltale holes chewed by a variety of caterpillars. Parker's kindergarten class won the school's "best door" prize by recreating "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" in construction paper. Now, if they look closely, they can see the whole process unfold in real time, right outside their windows.

Although school is in session, I hear only the fountain, some crickets and a few snatches of birdsong. Shamrock's adopted rabbit sits in a corner, chewing blades of grass. It's amazing how four hundred kids can be so quiet.

Across the yard, a small group of this year's kindergartners emerges from a classroom and walks toward the cafeteria, fingers to their lips, eyes down on the black-painted line they're supposed to follow as they walk from place to place.

There's a change there as well. When Parker entered kindergarten, he was the only child in his grade who went home to one of the comfortably middle-class houses that fill the well-off Plaza-Midwood neighborhood. This year, for the first time, there are several Plaza-Midwood children on the rolls.

We've been waiting for this moment. As I wrote when I started this blog, Peter and I came to high-poverty Shamrock because we don't believe in segregation. We believed we could help build a school where kids of many different kinds could thrive together. Now, we seem to have reached the point where some of our neighbors believe that too.

This shift has opened up new possibilities and new challenges.

There were advantages to having just a couple of Plaza-Midwood familes at Shamrock. Peter and I have made more new friends than we might have if more neighbors had been at the school. It also gave Shamrock time to build up on its own. The partial magnet program we have worked to establish is aimed at "gifted" students. A sudden rush of ambitious magnet parents could have divided the school, creating magnet classes that were far better off (and probably quite a bit whiter) than the school as a whole. But because the magnet drew few new families, that didn't happen. Instead, the "gifted" classes came to reflect the mix of ethnic and economic groups that make up Shamrock's broader population.

Now, it's a matter of welcoming a new group of students to an established program and helping them feel at home. They won't slide in unnoticed. Middle-class parents come to a school ready to act, wielding long lists of contacts, expectations and ideas. E-mails have flown faster and more furiously this summer than ever before. It's an energy and a focus that the school needs. But we'll have to work to mesh these new folks with the ones who have been here far longer, working in their own ways. We all have a lot to learn.